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A Last Minute Edit

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For my final paper, I collaborated with themword to create a dialogue in which we explored our understanding of the social and natural sciences. As a natural science major, I first a wrote about my opinions and current understanding of the social sciences which is included below. themword wrote to the same prompt only she substituted natural for social. We then exchanged papers and videotaped the conversation on social and natural sciences that followed. Please check out themword's 4th webpaper and visit the link to our video to learn more about the discoveries we made in the course of this final web "event."


Before graduation, Bryn Mawr College requires all of its undergraduates to complete a series of “divisional requirements.” There is a division for each of the three major lenses people adorn when attempting to make sense of the world: division I demarcates the social science courses, division II houses the quantitative and natural science courses, and division III represents those courses belonging to the humanities. Now that I think about it, it seems inappropriate for a liberal arts college which seeks to produce well rounded individuals as opposed to field specialists, to describe their general requirements with the word “division” since it implies that there exists a sharp, concrete line between all three of these disciplines. During my time as a biology major at Bryn Mawr, I have discovered that my interest in this major revolves around science education, a biological passion which transcends the divisions of the natural sciences. Despite the fact that my particular interest in the biological sciences relies heavily on the social sciences, I tend to marginalize and overlook this general area of study. While I respect all majors, especially the ones I never had any desire to pursue such as economics and political science, as a natural science major, I have created this discipline hierarchy with the natural sciences filling the loftiest position. Additionally, as a natural science major, I often feel misunderstood by my peers majoring in the humanities or social sciences. Social scientists do not understand what it is like to spend five grueling hours in an organic chemistry laboratory, waiting nervously for product to drip from a distillation column nor do they understand that I am not qualified to answer every science-related question simply because I am studying one of the natural sciences. Yet, at the end of my undergraduate career, I find myself suddenly realizing that it is I who should be charged with misunderstanding the social sciences. This paper provides me with an opportunity to reevaluate my understanding of the social sciences and examine the impulses that led to my construction of my discipline hierarchy.

            In my discipline hierarchy, the social sciences stand as a sub sect of the humanities. In fact, I recently referred to the partner whom I am collaborating with on this paper and upcoming video conversation as a “humanities person” despite the fact that she is majoring in political science. Apparently, Bryn Mawr also subconsciously recognizes the commonalities between these two disciplines as evidenced by the number and type of cross-divisional courses the institution offers. The Bryn Mawr 2010-2011 course catalog listed over 50 courses that counted as both division I and III and did not include any courses that satisfied both the division I and II requirement. Additionally, Bryn Mawr offers 19 division II and only three division I courses that simultaneously fulfill the quantitative requirement. This data suggests that there is more overlap between the humanities and social sciences and implies that the precision and calculations of the mathematical world fit better with the natural sciences. The association of the social sciences with the humanities most likely stems from the high degree of subjectivity that I believe seeps into both of these areas of study.

             The subjectivity involved in the social sciences manifests itself in the division I courses at institutions of higher learning. A professor of political science at California State Polytechnic University argues that social scientists face a wider spectrum of interpretation in regards to what topics to include in their courses than natural scientists (Korey 2010).  My thesis work on science education revealed that both the social and natural sciences encounter this problem. Last semester, I asked my biology senior seminar class to list the topics they felt an introductory biology class needed to cover and as a class, we failed to agree on any concept. While I agree that social and natural scientists face a similar challenge when deciding what to put into a class, the predictability of what a student takes from classes in these two areas differs dramatically. Social science courses often revolve around in-class discussions and assess students with open-ended essay prompts which means that even for courses with the most structured syllabus, the direction of the course depends partially on students’ interpretation of the material. For that reason, I believe that what one learns from a social science course fluctuates significantly from student to student. Although their opinions of a course can differ, students of a natural science class need to take a set of concepts with them in order to pass the final exam. I also believe that what a student takes from a social science class is more likely to vary from institution to institution since there is less of a consensus on how to define concepts in the social sciences than in the natural sciences. Consequently, there is more room in a social science course for a professor’s personal opinions to influence the trajectory of the course. To fulfill my division I requirement, I took an introductory sociology course and the extreme liberalness of the professor’s personal political beliefs tainted every aspect of the course. That class deepened my appreciation of my decision to fill my undergraduate schedule with the natural sciences where my professors’ political beliefs could not easily infiltrate and mangle the course material. Of course, I understand that the background of my natural science professors affects the presentation of concepts in my courses but, not to the same extent as seen in the social sciences.

            Yet, there must be some objectivity in the social sciences since the discipline’s title includes the word “science” and most people who haven’t completed a course with Professor Paul Grobstein feel that science is synonymous with objectivity. Prior to writing this paper, I assumed that social sciences’ association with science and claim to objectivity originated from their utilization of experiments and experimental designs similar to those of the natural sciences. However, experimentation is not limited to the natural and social sciences. Members of all disciplines develop hypotheses and conduct some sort of experiment to test their theory. Additionally, the experimental design employed actually differs radically between the social and natural scientists. Some scholars argue that social science experiments completely lack experimental design since social scientists cannot conduct controlled studies (Korey 2010). For example, when observing how one’s political party influences any type of human behavior, political scientists cannot control which people belong to which party. Consequently, social scientists cannot examine the effects of changing only one variable. Instead, social scientists must rely on field studies to gather their data. To construct any type of theory or mathematical equation, social scientists also need to create an unchanging world (von Mises 1942). Social scientists also face a challenge when it comes to making measurements in their experiments. Unlike molecular weights and other aspects of the natural sciences, human behavior, the subject of most social science studies, has no explicitly defined form of measurement. The inability for the social scientists to conduct controlled experiments or concretely measure their variables and the fact that they base their theories on an ideal world has led me to conclude that the theories and formulas derived from social science experiments do not possess the predictive value that natural science theories contain. After considering the lack of predictability afforded by social science studies, I have begun to question the utility of the social sciences which I know is a very taboo thing to be doing.

            Despite the differences in the experimental design, I do believe that the social and natural sciences share a few fundamental commonalities in terms of testing a hypothesis. Social scientists and natural scientists use the same scientific method. Both types of scientists are trained to investigate a hypothesis empirically and are encouraged to rely on observations and logic when framing a theory. They both possess the patience required during the data collection process and learn the same statistical tools for analyzing their data. Even though subjectivity intervenes in both fields, natural and social scientists seek objectivity.

            Perhaps these similarities help explain the resentment that I harbor towards the social science since they provide fuel for social scientists if the “Science Wars” of the 1990’s resurfaced and social and natural scientists again attempted to academically eradicate one another.  After all, in a world with limited resources, two fields with too many similarities cannot coexist. The fact that the social sciences dissuade students from joining in the “Women in Science” battle that I am actually involved in acts as potential another explanation for my dislike of the social sciences. As a female biology major, I am extremely honored to help bridge the gender gap that exists in the natural sciences and am saddened to see my female colleagues abandon the cause in favor of the social sciences.

            While the discipline hierarchy I constructed still remains more or less intact, this paper has allowed me to scrutinize its foundations and make some revisions to it. I have unearthed some major misconceptions and questions I have about the social sciences and cannot believe that I almost graduated still holding these ill-founded thoughts. I look forward to further expanding my understanding of the social sciences in the upcoming web conversation and encourage everyone to reflect on their perception of the other divisions that they are not pursuing.